Editorial

How dare you ask a question...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Every single presidential candidate that I've covered in these parts over the past year has prominently blasted the media in their prepared speeches. The strategy is well thought out and far from accidental.

The media is unfair to them by reporting their foibles or asking them questions they don't want to answer instead of lobbing them ego-booster softballs.

They are trailing in the polls only because the media gives them too little attention, or too much. The candidate is never at fault if they are losing, so it must be this mysterious enemy called media.

They never define what media is, though. Is it one or two giant television corporations and their celebrity talking heads, or is the anonymous workaday reporters toiling at the little papers around Iowa? Is it partisan attack posters who dominate social media, or fickle magazines that manipulate the campaign by putting one candidate or another on their covers?

Maybe they have a point. The media was once supposed to be objective, simply reporting what's happening and letting people make up their own minds. Much of the national media today - and some of the local as well - is as partisan as the politicians, and as power-hungry. Sometimes you can't tell "news" from editorializing, and what is reported as fact is often twisted or corrupted to suit their purposes. Call me naive, but I would suggest that this isn't always the case, and that fair news people at all levels still play an important role in keeping democracy viable.

Media and politicians: a strange, symbiotic relationship. All day every day, the candidates' staffs bombard Iowa newspapers with emails and phone calls, addressing them as if we were their long-lost best friends. In the pre-caucus months, I'll get 20 or more of these contacts a day at times.

They all want media to come cover the speeches of their candidate, do phone interviews, meet his or her relatives or friends to hear second-hand how wonderful they are. The candidate's handlers often communicate in conspiritual tones - We know you really want our guy. It would be great if you could get your readers to give us some cash, and if you reported this half-cocked dirt on his competitor. We're counting on you, buddy. Play ball with us or, America is doomed. You don't want that on your head, do you, old pal?

Are you coming to our campaign stop in the next county over? Are you, are you, are you? Can you get it on Twitter and Facebook, so our campaigns can quote you quoting us?

I've been asked to supply in advance what questions I would ask a candidate in exchange for them taking part an interview. I've been asked to send them my stories before they run so presumably campaign managers could edit them. I won't do an interview that way, don't care who it is.

When the reporter arrives to cover an appearance as requested, the candidate stands there and rips the media for mistreating them - the same media they begged yesterday to play on their team.

In fact, this love-hate trend with journalism isn't limited to politics.

A short time ago, an AP reporter was asked to cover Bill Cosby donating some art to a museum. After all the fluff about how wonderful the gesture was, he asked Cosby one question about allegations from more than 35 women who have accused the once-beloved comedian of drugging and sexually assaulting them.

Cosby refused to answer, which is his right. But then he tried to bully the reporter into "scuttling" the video of the questions, implying that daring to question someone as important as Cosby about behavior shows a lack of integrity. "If you want to consider yourself to be serious it will not appear anywhere," Cosby said.

Donald Trump has used Twitter to attack TV journalist Megyn Kelly after she questioned him during the Cleveland debate. Kelly asked if his public references to woman he doesn't like as "fat pigs," "dogs" and "disgusting animals" - and telling a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice that "it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees" - is temperament befitting a president.

In his response, Trump warned Kelly he has been very nice to her, "although I could maybe not be." Trump later mocked Kelly, saying she had been so upset, "You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." (He later claimed that by "whatever," he meant nose.) If you care to believe a Vanity Fair story, before he had announced his candidacy, Trump had courted Kelly with phone call complements and fair mail.

If it were your wife or daughter being talked about that way, would it be okay? But if you are a reporter, it's open season.

Disgraced Subway pitchman Jared Fogel's attorneys criticized the media for daring to report on his deviant sexual behavior involving children, insisting that "the story is a fabrication that lacks credibility" - until a tape recorded conversation was released showing just how true, and horrific, Fogel's actions had been.

And then there was R. Kelly, storming off the set of a TV interview after the reporter asked about multiple allegations of sexual abuse against women. Kelly said that if asked a "negative question," (that is, anything other than promoting sales of his latest hip hop CD) he was going to "walk." He insulted the reporter's intelligence for spoiling his "good times" in New York, but did tell her he thought she was "so beautiful" and that he "loves" her, as he fled.

Those in the public eye in America today clearly expect the journalist to promote, flatter and shield them from their own misdeeds, not to ask tough, real questions. Expectations are for fawning over public figures, not reporting. Not only that, those like political candidates are beginning to expect the power to manipulate both questions and answers.

And if you still care about truth, that should concern you.